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http://www.mailtribune.com/archive/2006/0629/sport/stories/free-hazingcolm.htm

 
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This sea lion waits patiently for a salmon carcass to slide down this tube from the fish-cleaning station along the Rogue River estuary at Gold Beach. The carcass-dumping practice has been discontinued and hazing will begin soon of salmon-stealing sea lions in the bay. (Photo by Garth Griffin)

Cracking down on thieving sea lions
June 29, 2006  Mail Tribune

GOLD BEACH The seals and sea lions that populate the Rogue River bay each summer are well schooled in how simple it is to score an easy salmon meal here.

They hang out at the fish-cleaning stations waiting for carcasses to come dashing down a discharge pipe. Or they patrol the bay waiting for anglers to hook chinook, which the pinniped thieves simply steal right off the lines at alarming rates.

"They're smart enough to know that, if you stand up in your boat with a net in your hand, they head right over to you," Gold Beach angler Ed Kammer says. "I've never seen anything like it."

In the past, those thieving sea lions were showered with little more than F-bombs and other curse words by anglers who felt hand-strapped by federal laws protecting marine mammals.

But this summer, the offending mammals will be greeted by underwater firecrackers called seal bombs, water blasts from hydraulic hoses and possibly even rubber bullets under a new non-lethal hazing program aimed at keeping the bay's pinnipeds in their place.

The Port of Gold Beach, with blessings from state and federal officials, will begin what federal biologists are calling the first concerted effort by a local government to haze, without harming, marine mammals off Northwest sport-fishing grounds.

The port plans to hire someone to patrol the bay and harass fish-stealing mammals, which have been blamed for munching up to half the sport catch in the bay last year.

Plans also are to blast water at sea lions lounging on port docks as well as discontinue the discharge of salmon carcasses into the bay.

The effort is being billed as a blueprint for how other ports can curb fish losses to mammals without hurting them while staying within the boundaries of state and federal laws.

"It's now so far out of control that it's threatening the sport-fishing industry," says Pete Dale, the port's general manager. "Well, we're going to make their lives uncomfortable here.

"We're not just going to solve this program in Gold Beach," Dale says. "We'll resolve the problem along the whole Oregon coast."

The port has state and federal permits to begin the hazing as early as Saturday, but the port has yet to hire its pinniped patroller, Dale says. While the rubber bullets remain an option, plans are to first use the seal bombs once the hazer is hired and trained, Dale says.

The program will be bankrolled by the Curry Sportfishing Association, which is ready to spend as much as $40,000 to reverse what members see is a problem tarnishing the lower Rogue's fishing reputation that community has guarded for decades.

Gold Beach guide Mark Lottis says anglers calling about fall chinook trips ask more about the sea lions than whether fishing is good or bad.

Others say customers left their fall chinook salmon trips last summer vowing not to return because of their sea lion hassles.

"When you lose a fish to that thing, people can become untied real fast," Lottis says.

"We want to get it to where people can go fishing and not worry about that aspect of it," Lottis says. "That's what we can hope for. It certainly would be worth every penny."

So far, only state and federal employees have been actively hazing sea lions away from salmon. That effort largely has focused on the Columbia River, where federal biologists estimated that mammals alone gulped 3.5 percent of the spring chinook at Bonneville Dam.

"This is the first time a local jurisdiction, funded by a sportsmen's group, has stepped up to do it themselves instead of whining about it," says Garth Griffin, supervisory fish biologist in the NOAA-Fisheries' office in Portland. "They're doing it right."

And right means within federal laws.

Healthy populations of harbor seals, California sea lions and Steller sea lions live year-round in the Rogue estuary. They are all protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans all harming and harassing of these species.

However, the act contains a provision that people in the act of fishing can use non-lethal deterrents like seal bombs to ward off seals threatening to take a fish away, Griffin says.

"We're not allowing anything to be done that harms these animals in any way," Griffin says.

However, if the seal bomb accidentally kills a wild coho salmon or other threatened species, then that hazing runs afoul of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Likewise, Steller sea lions are protected as a threatened species and cannot legally hazed by anglers in the act of fishing, Griffin says.

But the port, through state and federal permits, has the authority to haze Steller sea lions stealing fish in the bay as well as California sea lions and harbor seals without the hazer being in the act of fishing, Griffin says. They also have an incidental taking permit should a wild coho get killed in the process, Griffin says.

Griffin has been working with port officials and Rogue estuary anglers for more than a year on this issue.

Last year, anglers took advantage of their new-found knowledge about legal seal-hazing in a hodgepodge of activities.

"Everybody was doing their own thing," Lottis says. "People were throwing their own seal bombs and it was getting out of hand."

By consolidating the effort through the port, hazing can go on in a more systematic way throughout the day and results could be measured.

"We're all thinking this is going to be a good deal," Lottis says.

So far, attempts to keep sea lions off port docks and wave breaks has been rather unsuccessful, with the 1,200-pound critters breaking obstacles, Dale says.

The port already has stopped the practice of anglers placing filleted salmon carcasses in a tube that dumps them from the fish-cleaning station to the bay.

On a trip to the bay last year, Griffin says he watched one particular sea lion last year sat at the base of the tube, barking, all day.

"I could hear him all over the bay, like he was yelling to the gods to drop another carcass to him," Griffin laughs.

While this veritable chumming for sea lions is over, Dale and Lottis hope the salmon gods are smiling their way when the pinniped patrols begin.

"Let's hope it works," Dale says. "I'm open to all suggestions."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com

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